Back in April 2017, Ron Hextall pledged that Claude Giroux was not declining. At 29 years old, Giroux was entering the offseason with a career low in goals (14) for a full season and a third straight drop-off in points (58).
Prior to that troubling 2016-17 campaign, Giroux underwent hip and abdominal procedures. He did not look like himself through those ensuing 82 games and outside doubt had started swirling about his career arc.
Hextall, the Flyers' general manager at the time, spoke with unwavering confidence and conviction in defense of his captain. He hammered home his point by focusing on Giroux's work ethic and commitment.
"I know this: I'll be shocked next year if you guys don't ask me in January, 'Well, how has G turned this around?'" Hextall said. "He's a very driven athlete, he's very driven. I know he's going to train hard this year. We're going to make some minor tweaks in how he trains. He trains hard."
The very next season, Giroux astoundingly put up career highs across the board with 34 goals, 68 assists, 102 points and a plus-28 rating. At 30 years old.
Perhaps Giroux trained and played with a ticked-off attitude or perhaps he was simply healthier and rejuvenated. But he boisterously proved something and did so with time, work, adjustments and, yeah, probably a few extra drops of fuel to his competitive fire.
Another offseason has arrived for Philadelphia's current longest-tenured athlete, going back to 2008. More tweaks to his physical preparation could be needed and in store. Giroux is now 32 years old, turns 33 in January and is once again staring down the ole father time narrative. The narrative is no joke; age is not always just a number, particularly in the NHL, a league that seems to be getting younger and faster by the game.
But, in the past, Giroux has shown the necessary smarts and awareness to adapt. By no means was his 2019-20 season a bad one. He had 53 points (21 goals, 32 assists) and a career-best 59.0 faceoff win percentage in 69 games as the Flyers produced their best regular season (despite it being shortened) since 2010-11.
Giroux's performance in the NHL's return-to-play 24-team tournament is what has drawn the most ire. He finished with one goal and seven assists in 16 games as the Flyers were ousted in the second round following a Game 7 loss to the Islanders. Over his past three playoff runs, Giroux has two goals and 10 assists in 28 games.
Fans expect more and rightfully so. They will expect more from Giroux in the 2021 playoffs if the Flyers make it and go on an expected run.
The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs were unlike any others in history. There was a four-month pause because of the coronavirus outbreak, a two-week training camp and then the postseason.
"Personally, obviously it’s not a secret, I would have liked to play better," Giroux said last week. "I think as the playoffs went on, I started feeling a little bit better. It was obviously a unique tournament that we had — you're off for a couple months and then you go straight to the playoffs. It was fair for everybody, but it just felt like it took me a little bit longer to kind of get going."
A week ago, head coach Alain Vigneault expressed his objective to help Giroux continue to evolve with age.
"There should be no doubt in anybody's mind about his will to be successful and his will to help his teammates," Vigneault said. "I do agree that he is getting older; he’s got an opportunity right now since we’re in pause, the whole world right now is in pause, to take these next months and really work at his conditioning and probably find the time to slow [the aging process]. He’s getting older. As you get older, the muscles don’t react as quick, but you can work on that and he’s going to put in a lot of time and effort. I do believe there are some areas after having gone through with Claude [our first playoffs together], I do believe there are some areas that I can help him with where he can perform better.
"Obviously the comments that I’m going to have with him and he’s going to have with me are going to be on a personal level, so we’re not going to share that, but I can tell you on the record very directly that I do believe that he can play better, he can perform better, and knowing Claude, he’ll put in the time and the effort to do it.
"Claude's an individual that takes tremendous care of himself physically. I'm saying right now, because he's getting older, [Jakub Voracek] is getting older, [James van Riemsdyk] is getting older — life is life, as you get older, it catches up to you. So they have to spend more time, maybe they have to find new techniques to slow the natural evolution that we will all go through, that's what I'm trying to say. There's a way for him to try and slow what happens to all of us as we get older."
Therein lies a few important facts to highlight why the sky is not falling on Giroux's productivity, effectiveness and tenure with the Flyers.
Vigneault was not questioning Giroux's commitment and, as the head coach stated, nobody should. The team's captain since 2013 has been regarded by many for his lead-by-example approach, his uber competitiveness and his year-after-year durability.
Going back to 2009-10, the year of the Flyers' Stanley Cup Final run, Giroux has played in 845 of a possible 855 games and has scored 788 points. He's the only NHL player to rank in the top five of both categories over that span. He's clearly doing something right in terms of his workout regimen and taking it seriously. Those numbers also lend credence to the belief that his career longevity won't take a sudden precipitous dip. He had a career resurgence at 30 years old fresh off the worst season of his career.
"I’ve been with the Flyers for 13 years and I’ve been fully committed to this organization," Giroux said. "Every offseason, I think I do a good job to get a little better. Obviously when you get a little bit older, however the season went on, you always want to tweak the way you work out. That’s something that I might have to tweak one or two things, but at the end of the day, I think every time camp starts, I’m in great shape. I expect to do the same here."
And maybe this fact is hard for some to swallow but Giroux is no longer the Flyers' best player. That's OK. There's nothing really wrong with that realization and development. When star players earn their big contracts in their prime years of age, there's a strong likelihood production tapers off toward the end of the deal. That's natural. It's all part of the compromise in negotiations to lock up centerpiece players. You get the peak years and the later years.
Now, the 27-year-old Sean Couturier is the Flyers' do-it-all forward, the 23-year-old Konecny is the team's leading scorer, the 23-year-old Ivan Provorov is the backbone on the blue line and the 22-year-old Carter Hart is arguably the club's most important player. The Flyers are now better as they've gotten younger and deeper around Giroux.
This is also some of the stuff that could fuel Giroux's offseason drive.
The 2020-21 season will be the penultimate year of Giroux's contract. He can become an unrestricted free agent after the 2021-22 season. Crazy to think about, right?
When the time arrives, it will serve as a monumental crossroad for Giroux and the organization.
The time hasn't arrived yet. Let's see how much Giroux can slow it down and write the script.